The setting alone, in five contiguous medieval stone mansions, makes the Museu Picasso unique (and worth the probable queues). The pretty courtyards, galleries and staircases preserved in the first three of these buildings are as delightful as the collection inside.
While the collection concentrates on the artist’s formative years – sometimes disappointing for those hoping for a feast of his better-known later works (they had better head for Paris) – there is enough material from subsequent periods to give you a thorough impression of the man’s versatility and genius. Above all, you come away feeling that Picasso was the true original, always one step ahead of himself (let alone anyone else), in his search for new forms of expression.
The permanent collection is housed in Palau Aguilar, Palau del Baró de Castellet and Palau Meca, all dating to the 14th century. The 18th-century Casa Mauri, built over medieval remains (even some Roman leftovers have been identified), and the adjacent 14th-century Palau Finestres accommodate temporary exhibitions.
The collection, which includes more than 3500 artworks, is strongest on Picasso’s earliest years, up until 1904, which is apt considering that the artist spent his formative creative years in Barcelona. Allegedly it was Picasso himself who proposed the museum's creation in 1960, to his friend and personal secretary Jaume Sabartés, a Barcelona native. Three years later, the 'Sabartés Collection' was opened, since a museum bearing Picasso’s name would have been met with censorship – Picasso's opposition to the Franco regime was well known. The Museu Picasso we see today opened in 1983. It originally held only Sabartés' personal collection of Picasso's art and a handful of works hanging at the Barcelona Museum of Art, but the collection gradually expanded with donations from Salvador Dalí and Sebastià Junyer Vidal, among others, though the largest part of the present collection came from Picasso himself. His widow, Jacqueline Roque, also donated 41 ceramic pieces and the Woman with Bonnet painting after Picasso's death. The original collection still hangs in the Palau Aguilar.
A visit starts with sketches and oils from Picasso’s earliest years in Málaga and A Coruña – around 1893–95. Some of his self-portraits and the portraits of his parents, which date from 1896, are evidence enough of his precocious talent. Retrato de la tía Pepa (Portrait of Aunt Pepa), done in Málaga in 1896, shows the incredible maturity of his brushstrokes and his ability to portray character – at the tender age of 15! Picasso painted the enormous Ciència i caritat (Science and Charity) in the same year, showcasing his masterful academic techniques of portraiture. His ingeniousness extends to his models too, with his father standing in for the doctor, and a beggar, whom he hired off the street along with her offspring, modelling the sick woman and the child. This painting caused the young artist to be noticed in the higher echelons of Spain's art world, when Ciència i caritat was awarded an Honorary Mention at the General Fine Arts Exhibition in Madrid in 1897.
In rooms 5–7 hang paintings from his first Paris sojourn, while room 8 is dedicated to the first significant new stage in his development, the Blue Period. Woman with Bonnet is an important work from this period, depicting a detainee from the Saint-Lazare women's prison and venereal disease hospital that Picasso visited when in Paris – this also sets up the theme of Picasso's fascination with those inhabiting the down-and-out layers of society.
His nocturnal blue-tinted views of Terrats de Barcelona (Roofs of Barcelona) and El foll (The Madman) are cold and cheerless, yet somehow alive. Terrats de Barcelona was painted during his second stint at the 17 Carrer de la Riera Sant Joan studio in 1903 – he painted the city rooftops frequently, from different perspectives in this period. El foll shows the artist's interest in the people on the margins of society, and Picasso made many drawings of beggars, the blind and the impoverished elderly throughout 1903 and 1904.
A few cubist paintings pop up in rooms 10 and 11; check the Glass and Tobacco Packet still-life painting, a beautiful and simple work. Picasso started to experiment with still life in 1924 – something he'd done before but had not taken to as seriously as he would from here on.
From 1954 to 1962 Picasso was obsessed with the idea of researching and ‘rediscovering’ the greats, in particular Velázquez. In 1957 he made a series of renditions of the Velázquez' masterpiece, Las meninas, now displayed in rooms 12–14. It is as though Picasso has looked at the original Velázquez painting through a prism reflecting all the styles he had worked through until then, creating his own masterpiece in the process. This is a wonderful opportunity to see Las meninas in its entirety in this beautiful space.
The last rooms contain his dove paintings, engravings and some 40 ceramic pieces completed throughout the latter years of his unceasingly creative life. You'll see plates and bowls decorated with simple, single-line drawings of fish, owls and other animal shapes, typical for Picasso's daubing on clay.